Hearts a’ flutter

Classic Italian opera Madame Butterfly comes to Dayton

By Eric Street

Photo: Yunah Lee makes her 31st appearance as Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) with this weekend’s performance at the Schuster Center

The Opera

Has heartbreak ever sounded so beautiful?  You can hear and decide for yourself when the Dayton Opera presents Giacomo Puccini’s beloved Madame Butterfly. The exotic East-meets-West setting frames the moving account of a naively trusting wife willing to wait as long as it takes for her love to return. The opera will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Since its 1904 La Scala premiere, the tragic story of Madame Butterfly has deeply moved audiences with some of Puccini’s richest scoring and most beloved music. The first act climaxes with a passionate love duet between Lieutenant Pinkerton, an American sailor, and Cio-Cio-San, nicknamed Madame Butterfly, the trusting Japanese girl he has just wed—temporarily, in his mind; forever in hers.

Lovingly set in 19th-century Japan, this traditional production is perfumed with the exotic East, yet the emotional chords it strikes are at home anywhere in the world. It’s hard not to weep at Butterfly’s excitement when Pinkerton’s ship, after three agonizing years of waiting, finally returns to Nagasaki. After all this time, both Butterfly and Pinkerton have secrets to reveal. Butterfly has a young boy of three, dressed and ready to meet his long-awaited father. And Pinkerton has returned to Japan with his pretty new American wife.

That the audience already knows the wrenching eventual outcome only heightens the emotional tension as the voices of Butterfly and Pinkerton soar together to blissful heights of young love. Small wonder that Madame Butterfly’s place is secure in the world’s top ten most-performed operas!

The Cast

For the role of Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly), Artistic Director Thomas Bankston has cast a newcomer to Dayton Opera in soprano Yunah Lee.  However, Yunah Lee is certainly no newcomer to Madame Butterfly. This appearance with Dayton Opera will mark Lee’s astonishing 31st performance as Puccini’s heroine Cio-Cio-San, after singing the title role with opera companies across the globe. Reviews have hailed Lee as “…a revelation… [her] voice unites the girlish innocence and the wistful sensuality [of Cio-Cio-San]” (Online Musik Magazin) and “…utterly convincing in mood and presentation… a commanding and touching performance revealing the highs and lows of Butterfly’s emotions.” (Das Opernglas). Lee has sung Cio-Cio-San with companies including Opéra de Québec, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Carolina, Glimmerglass Opera and, most recently, The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

To partner Yunah Lee’s renowned Cio-Cio-San, tenor John Pickle returns to Dayton Opera as her suitor, husband, and betrayer, Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Pickle made his company debut in the role of Radames in Dayton Opera’s 2014 production of Verdi’s epic Aida.

In a 2014 performance as Pinkerton with Florida Grand Opera, Pickle earned this praise: “[Pickle as] Pinkerton was robust, and practically perfect.” (The Shot Glass Review)  Additionally, concertonet.com lauded Pickle’s Pinkerton as “…well-groomed for the role, with a big voice which he has no trouble controlling.”

Mezzo-soprano Ryu-Kyung Kim returns to Dayton Opera to play the role of Suzuki, Butterfly’s devoted maid and confidante. A member of the vocal performance faculty in the University of Dayton Department of Music, Dr. Kim performed two roles with Dayton Opera in the 2014-2015 season, including Third Lady in The Magic Flute and Jade Boucher in Dead Man Walking, in which she gave a gripping performance as the mother of one of the convicted criminal’s victims.

Baritone Corey Crider also returns to Dayton Opera to play the role of Sharpless, the American Consul in Japan who has the awkward task of breaking the news to Butterfly that Pinkerton will return to Nagasaki. Crider last appeared with Dayton Opera as Morales in the 2005 production of Carmen, and has recently sung leading roles with Opera Roanoke, Arizona Opera, Sarasota Opera, Madison Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Returning to Dayton Opera for his fifth production, bass Adam Fry will sing the role of The Bonze. Fry first appeared with Dayton Opera in the 2006 Madame Butterfly production, followed by Macbeth and Turandot in 2008, and most recently in Tosca in 2013.

Rounding out the cast are three vocalists making their Dayton Opera debuts:  tenor Robert Norman as Goro, baritone Andrew Pardini in the dual roles of Imperial Commissioner and Prince Yamadori, and soprano Kasia Borowiec as Kate Pinkerton.  Pardini and Borowiec are both members of Dayton Opera’s upcoming 2015-2016 Artists-in-Residence Program.

Conductor Robert Tweten will lead the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in Puccini’s lush score. Originally from Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, Tweten makes his Dayton Opera debut with this production.  Last year Tweten conducted Madame Butterfly with both Edmonton Opera and Utah Opera.  Reviewers praised his “verve and precision,” as well as his “flawless” pacing and “musicality and near-symbiotic accord with singers, which always impresses.”

With over 30 years of experience with the New York City Opera to offer, Albert Sherman returns to Dayton Opera to stage-direct Puccini’s masterpiece, bringing this heart-wrenching story to life on the Mead Theatre Stage.  No stranger to Dayton, Sherman directed The Elixir of Love in 1998, Cosí Fan Tutte in 1999, Cinderella in 2006, The Merry Widow in 2009, and Romeo and Juliet in 2012.

“I am very excited to be returning to Dayton Opera for the sixth time,” says Sherman. “It is one of my favorite companies to work with and I am very happy to see the company continue to grow and thrive, especially given what has happened to many companies around the United States….”

As Sherman explains, “Audiences love Butterfly for a number of reasons. First off, the music is very beautiful and helps support as well as propel the story and emotionally support what the characters are saying and feeling.

“The challenge of staging Butterfly is understanding the Japanese culture and traditions and trying to respect this. But as it is an opera written by Italians, one has to look at it from that perspective as well. So finding a balance is challenging as a director,” he continues.

The Dayton Opera Chorus, under the skillful leadership of Chorus Master Jeffrey Powell, will take to the stage again to lend their voices in bringing this opera to life on the Schuster Center stage.

The Composer

Born in Lucca, Italy, in 1858, Giacomo Puccini was part of the fifth generation of professional musicians in his family. Playing the piano in taverns and, some say, bordellos as a youth, Puccini worked as a church organist from the age of 14. Local legend has it that the youngster pawned the organ pipes one by one to purchase cigarettes, carefully avoiding the notes he had sold to conceal his youthful crime. He improvised his services, often working in snatches of opera into the postludes. A performance of Verdi’s Aida at Pisa that Puccini walked to in 1876 made such an impact on him that he decided to follow his instinct for operatic composition. In 1880 he wrote an operatic-sounding mass, Messa di Gloria, that encouraged his great-uncle to help underwrite his musical education.

As a music student at the Milan Conservatory from 1880 to 1883, Puccini roomed with Mascagni, now known as the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana. The young men seem to have led a life not unlike that of the students depicted in his La Boheme. Despite help from Puccini’s generous great-uncle, money was tight. When the landlord came looking for Puccini, he hid in the wardrobe while Mascagni regretfully announced that he was out.

Lodgers weren’t allowed to cook in the room, so Puccini would play the piano with vigor to cover the sounds of food preparation. At one point, Puccini pawned his only coat to take out a ballet dancer from La Scala, an action later to become immortalized in the plot of La Boheme.

During his three years studying in Milan, Puccini’s chief teachers were Bazzini and Ponchielli. Ponchielli is best remembered for the “Dance of the Hours” from his opera La Gioconda. If that doesn’t ring a bell, remember the dancing hippos in tutus from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia?” They’re dancing to the “Dance of the Hours,” with very similar choreography, (though I hasten to add that the original calls for no dancing hippos or crocodiles).

While still a student, Puccini entered a one-act opera competition announced in 1882 by the publishing firm of Sonzogno. He lost to Mascagni, but Puccini’s entry, Le villi, came to the attention of the publisher Giulio Ricordi, who arranged a successful production in Milan and commissioned a second opera, Edgar.

Edgar was coolly received at La Scala in1889. It did, however, begin Puccini’s lifelong association with the house of Ricordi, which published Madame Butterfly, along with all the rest of his operas.

The wealthy, mature Puccini characterized himself as a “mighty hunter of ducks, fast cars, and women.” The facts of his life seem to bear out his assertion. His duck-hunting gear is still on display at his villa in Torre del Lago.

Puccini eventually totaled his fast car, and he was hardly luckier for some of the women who crossed his path. However, it was probably his several pack-a-day smoking habit which ultimately did him in. He died in 1924 of complications from throat cancer treatments in Brussels, his last magnificent opera still unfinished.

Dayton Opera presents Madame Butterfly Friday, Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. and Sunday Nov. 22 at 3 pm. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton. Pre-performance talks will be presented by UD Music Professor Dr. Sam Dorf one hour prior to each show. Tickets range from $38-$94. Senior, student and military discounts available. For tickets and more information call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org.

Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at EricStreet@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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